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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Dodgy Translations

Hedgehog with snorkel and flippers

A XXX rated salad, a submarine hedgehog and a herd of 5,000 bison rampaging across England's New Forest ... What are these? The latest Sun headlines? Monty Python story lines? No, just the world bent out of shape by linguistic error.

By popular demand, well, OK, one request, I thought I would share with you some of my favorite moments from my linguistic clanger collection. Actually, I don't believe the list is that enviable, but these have caused the odd giggle.

Is that a chicken in your salad, or are you just pleased to see me?

As you may (or may not) know, MOST of the time you can safely change a masculine word in Spanish (one that ends in an O) into it's feminine equivalent, simply by changing the last letter to an A. Of course, there are exceptions to this.

So there was the time that a friend of a friend once asked her future mother-in-law for "ensalada de polla". Ensalada (salad) is OK. Pollo is chicken. Unfortunately, polla is not hen, that's gallina. Polla is a part of the male anatomy that one does not normally eat as part of a light summer lunch. At least not in company of one's future mother-in-law. :)

Screwing with the natural habitat ...

One of my favourite linguistic clangers comes from my days at the newspapers.

What animal is spiky and does a lot of damage to the seabed?

A scuba diving hedgehog, maybe? Well, only maybe. The story, which originally ran in the local Spanish press, talked about the plague of erizo that were damaging the seabed around the south of the island, and indeed erizo is the Spanish word for hedgehog.

But, I had never seen a hedgehog in the south of Tenerife anywhere, much less in the sea (we do have 'em, on land, in the north), so out came the dictionary. Ah, erizo is also the translation of sea urchin, so that would be our plague. Logical really, both being spiky.

(In English, sea urchins are called sea urchins because hedgehogs used to be called urchins until the 15th Century. So sea urchins are basically ocean hedgehogs!)

This isn't a problem, in context, but it does mean that you have to read the entire context to get the right animal. The funny part is that one of the other English language newspapers obviously didn't read the entire context, because, a couple of weeks after this, their translation of the story appeared, complete with a picture of a hedgehog.

Theirs didn't have a snorkel though!

But, to be fair, even the professionals have off days.

Spanish national news agency EFE used to provide the newspaper I worked for with stories translated into English. One alarming report claimed that a herd of some 5,000 BISON were laying waste to the New Forest in the south of England. This caused us a laugh, but we knew what the problem was. In Spanish, B's are pronounced a bit like V's and vice versa.

What was really running around the south of England in its thousands were VISÓN, which when translated into English are MINK, let out of a fur farm by animal activists. Still damaging pests, but I think you'd notice the difference if you met one.

As luck would have it on this occasion, we had "our man on the spot", no more than a few hundred yards from a cattle grid into the forest, in New Milton. My late father; always a man capable of maturely assessing a situation and acting accordingly. He did indeed report the sighting of one bison in the vicinity. In the bathroom: a wash hand bison (basin).